Of Curious Workmanship
by Edgar G. Snow, Jr.
[p.25] Every chorister in the church knows and quotes, like a cheerleader, D&C 25:11(b): “yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads.” But have you ever noticed they usually pass over the poetic parallelism that begins this passage in D&C 25:11(a): “For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart.” This passage may have been the inspiration for one of my favorite books in my library: Recreational Songs, copyright 1949 by the Corporation of the President, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Run, do not walk, to your nearest Deseret Industries thrift shop and see if you can find it for 50 cents or less. You may even be able to pilfer it from a lost and found shelf in a church foyer or convince your mom to give you hers. It’s probably next to her Relief Society resin grapes in the coat closet. It’s easy to spot: it’s bright red buckram-bound [p.26] and has a treble clef gliding across the cover in the wake of some quarter notes embossed in silver.
Many of you will remember singing from this book during MIA opening exercises in days of yore. As late as 1972-74, we sang from it in my ward in Knoxville, Tennessee. Let me whet your appetite with a guided tour through its pages.
The book begins with a prophecy that has already been fulfilled: “Community singing, although fundamentally a recreational function, will most surely degenerate and cease to be if there is not generated with it a genuine musical experience.” Here is a listing of some of the song categories and selected quotes about them from the book:
“Everyone should join in the singing of our patriotic songs and should be induced to sing them with sincere patriotic fervor.”
“Everyone should learn … these beautiful songs.”
“The Negro spiritual is the miracle of all songs.” To which I sincerely say, Amen.
“Many of the Western Folk Songs contain little but doggerel verse. We present in this section four of the better ones.”
“Nothing can tone up a community ‘Sing’ more than the inclusion of a song from the Master Composers.”
GILBERT & SULLIVAN
“The team of ‘Gilbert and Sullivan’ knows no counterpart in the field of collaborators.”
“Wholesome fun is the objective to be attained when songs from this section are used in a community ‘Sing’ .”
Here are some representative songs from Recreational Songs:
“Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes” by none other than Ben Johnson.
“A Kiss.” The first verse: ‘‘A kiss is such a curious thing [qualifying it for this book, of course]. It’s never understood. You eat it not, you drink it not; and yet it is SO good, so good.”
“The Low-Backed Car” by Samuel Lover (suspicious last name). A quote: “The lovers Come near and far And envy the chicken That Peggy is pickin’, As she sits in the low-back’d car.” Do not adjust your monitor, you have not entered the Twilight Zone, although I’ve never heard a funnier, weirder song at church.
“Volga Boat Song.” Everyone sing along with me! “Yo, heave, ho, yo, heave, ho.”
“Come Let Us Be Gay.” Just goes to show that over time, the English language lends itself to terrific ironies.
[p.28] “Short-’nin’ Bread,” “Old Black Joe,” and “Old Folks at Home.” A few of the songs are painful reminders of the past, especially some of the dialect and phrases such as “Feed dem darkies on short-’nin’ bread.”
“Beautiful Dreamer” by Stephen Foster.
“Tit-Willow” by Gilbert and Sullivan. We couldn’t sing this song in MIA without snickering.
“Vive L’Amour. “ Cool.
“O Me! O My!” A couple of years ago, around 1994, I tried to wake up the congregation during one of my sacrament meeting talks by suggesting the chorister lead them in this song, which I quoted: “O me! O my! We’ll get there by and by. If anybody likes the speaker, It’s I, I, I, I, I.” This is a true story. I was not successful.
“John Johnson’s Army.” I bet many of you know this one. “Four black mules and a pack a dem fools, and they landed on the other side of Jordan.”
Finally, “Comrades in the MIA.” I recall sometimes we did sing, arms locked in arms, swaying in the pews. Or maybe not.
I’ll end this essay with a final timeless note from the book for the instruction and edification of the song leader: “He is the epitome of musical enthusiasm. He organizes people into singing groups at the least provocation.” I, for one, rue the passing of those blessed MIA days. And I am not snickering.